A West Orange attorney and a journalist who monitors Islamic fundamentalism are attacking the inclusion of a Georgetown University Islamic studies professor at a state-sponsored conference on counterterrorism.
Stephen Flatow, the attorney, and Steven Emerson, the journalist, say John Esposito is an apologist for violent Muslim extremists and that he denies they pose a threat to the United States.
He was one of eight men scheduled at press time to appear Oct. 3 at a daylong counterterrorism conference sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security at the Trenton War Memorial. He was booked to appear on a four-member panel discussion, "To What Extent Is Radicalization a Concern in the U.S.?"
Emerson quotes Esposito in a speech last August saying, "The reality of it is there is no major significant threat in the mosques in America."
"I don't think it's appropriate," Emerson, who has written critically about Esposito's inclusion at the conference on his blog, told NJ Jewish News.
"If you have a race relations conference, you don't bring in David Duke," added Emerson, referring to the former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana.
Emerson charges the Georgetown professor with being an apologist for Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian computer engineer who pleaded guilty of conspiring to help Islamic Jihad after being acquitted on eight of 17 federal charges against him in 2006.
According to Emerson, Esposito praised Al-Arian in August during a banquet held by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Dallas. Emerson quoted Esposito as saying, "Sami Al-Arian's a very good friend of mine. And you know, God help Sami Al-Arian in terms of this administration and any others who have to live through this," referring to Al-Arian's prosecution. "The reality of it is there is no major significant threat in the mosques in America."
Emerson also scored Esposito for including Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian-Muslim cleric, among those who are engaged in a "reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism, and human rights." According to Emerson, Qaradawi "has sanctioned suicide bombings against American troops in Iraq, calling those who die fighting U.S. forces 'martyrs,' and civilians in Israel, referring to such terrorist acts as 'just' and a 'divine destiny.'"
Alisa Flatow, Stephen Flatow's daughter, was killed in a Gaza bus bombing in 1995 in an attack orchestrated by Islamic Jihad.
"It seems that Esposito blames everyone but those actually responsible for much of the mayhem in the world — Islamic extremists and those who support them," said Flatow, a former chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Interviewed by telephone as he vacationed in Israel, Flatow told NJJN that Esposito "advances the Islamist line of thought that everyone has to become a Muslim by following the precepts of the Koran, which include violence. Is this the kind of person we want to lecture about terrorism to New Jersey's first responders? I don't think so — and I hope the folks who invited him have second thoughts about that invitation."
Both Flatow and Emerson have also criticized Esposito for supporting the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Although CAIR states emphatically on its Web site that it has "consistently and persistently condemned terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians," the group has been attacked repeatedly by Emerson as an organization that is "dragging the American-Muslim community down its maximalist, pro-Hamas path."
"Esposito thinks CAIR is good," Emerson told NJJN. "He has no place at a counterterrorism conference. He may be appropriate for other conventions but not appropriate for a conference whose stated mission is to fight terrorism. It is inappropriate to have someone like this, six years after 9/11, who defends Islamic extremist groups and discounts the threat of radical Islam. If this was a privately sponsored counterterrorist conference, I wouldn't have a problem with it."
A spokesperson for the NJ Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness defended Esposito's inclusion at the symposium.
"I can't speak to Emerson's views, but Esposito is a person on a diverse panel," said Roger Shatzkin. "Those invited are there to hear a variety of views. Esposito is a fairly well-known author."
According to Shatzkin, the conference "is a working session open to law enforcement, academics, and people in the mental health field. It poses a question as to whether radicalization is an issue here. It is being asked in a lot of different places. This is really a preliminary discussion to see what next steps might be necessary — if they are necessary."
Esposito's fellow panelists include Dr. Brian Fishman from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy; Daniel Sutherland, director of the office of civil rights and civil liberties at the federal Department of Homeland Security; and Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president for homeland security at George Washington University.
Neither Esposito nor any others on the panel returned NJJN's phone calls seeking comment. In an e-mail, the professor's executive assistant, Denisse Bonilla-Chaoui, said Esposito was "currently teaching and will be meeting with students" and would be unable to answer questions before the newspaper's deadline.
Esposito has tussled with Emerson in court. Earlier this year he filed an affidavit in which he sought to defend the Islamic Society of Boston from charges leveled by Emerson and others that the organization has ties to radical Islamist groups.
In an article for the Washington Post's Web site, Esposito wrote that true Islam has been distorted both by extremists and their critics.
"Terrorists like Osama bin Laden and others go beyond classical Islam's criteria for a just jihad and recognize no limits but their own, employing any weapons or means," wrote Esposito. "They reject Islamic law's regulations regarding the goals and legitimate means for a valid jihad: that violence must be proportional, only the necessary amount of force should be used to repel the enemy; that innocent civilians should not be targeted; and that jihad must be declared by the ruler or head of state."